Government & Politics

‘It takes five minutes or less.’ Court ruling means new Kansas voters sign up easily

Naturalization leads to voter registration for new citizens

72 of the 82 new citizens registered to vote following a naturalization ceremony on Friday, June 22, 2018, at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.
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72 of the 82 new citizens registered to vote following a naturalization ceremony on Friday, June 22, 2018, at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.

Four days after a federal judge threw out a Kansas voting restriction, 72 newly naturalized Americans became registered voters in the same courthouse where the landmark voting rights trial took place.

“That’s the reason why I became a citizen: to be able to vote,” said Patricia Mascote, who owns a convenience store in Overland Park and has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years after emigrating from Mexico.

If Mascote’s naturalization ceremony had taken place just a week earlier, Mascote could have been required to submit her naturalization documents to complete the registration process.

Instead, all she and the other newly registered voters had to do was write down their names and addresses and attest to their new status as citizens.

“It takes five minutes or less, and it’s done,” said Christine Hutchins, a member of the Johnson County chapter of the League of Women Voters, who oversaw the registration of new citizens Friday at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.

The League of Women Voters has been at war for the past five years with a Kansas law that required prospective voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or naturalization documents, to register.

Now that a federal judge has ruled the law unconstitutional, the League and other groups hoping to register new voters expect to see the state’s voter rolls grow by thousands before November, when Kansas chooses a new governor.

The man who designed the law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, could be on the ballot if he prevails in the GOP primary in August.

Kobach's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In the past, he has repeatedly disputed the notion that the requirement has hampered voter registration.

“I understand Kobach needs to take classes on the law again. It makes you think,” said Manuel Novas-Garcia, a voter who became naturalized Friday and was aware of the judge’s order in the case.

Kobach’s office is appealing the ruling, but he has said he will complete the six hours of training on civil procedure the judge ordered him to take.

Novas-Garcia, who emigrated from Spain to attend Kansas State University, says he won’t miss an election now that he’s a voter.

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Manuel Novas-Garcia, who is from Spain, posed with his wife after Friday's naturalization ceremony at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kan. Luke Harbur

“The motto of this country is ‘No taxation without representation.’ I’ve been a taxpayer for six years, and it was time to join the club of voters,” said Novas-Garcia, a Spanish teacher in the Blue Valley school district.

The Sedgwick County Election Office began sending representatives to naturalization ceremonies in Wichita after the law went into effect — a point that was often made by Kobach during the trial.

“We did start attending as a result of the law but will continue to do so from here forward. In Sedgwick County, we can have as many as three ceremonies a week,” said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman, a Kobach appointee and a witness in the trial.

Lehman said that after the ruling, her office will no longer ask for the naturalization documents when it attends the ceremonies.

“Because we did not start attending naturalization ceremonies until after the ... law was in effect, I can’t really speak to if it was more difficult. We have hand-held scanners that we utilize to scan naturalization documents at the ceremonies so it was fairly seamless for us, probably just took a little more time,” she said in an email.

Many Democrats point to the proof-of-citizenship requirement as a factor in Democrat Paul Davis’ defeat in the 2014 election when he narrowly lost to former Gov. Sam Brownback.

“When you’re trying to get someone who doesn’t normally vote to vote and then there’s this extra hurdle, a lot of people just won’t go through with it,” said Brooklynne Mosley, who worked as a regional field director on Davis’ campaign.

“It really affected our numbers,” said Mosley, who now serves as the deputy executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.

Davis, who is now running for the U.S. House in Kansas’ 2nd District, said the court ruling will make it easier for campaigns to get new voters to the polls.

“I think that’s definitely true, and our campaign has been registering people to vote,” he said.

“I think it also is going to give people the confidence that if they register, they are going to be able to vote … because I think a lot of people looked at what Kris Kobach was doing and they were concerned about 'is my vote going to be counted.'”

A year after his defeat in the race for governor, Davis was part of a group of attorneys who filed a lawsuit in federal court against Kobach’s office.

That lawsuit, which challenged the law on constitutional grounds, was later joined with a separate case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in last week’s decision.

Court orders from both the state and federal level prevented the law from being fully enforced during the 2016 election, but there were still thousands of potential voters who were blocked from voting depending on the registration method they used.

Last week's ruling ensures that voters do not have to provide proof of citizenship regardless of how they sign up to vote — whether it's at the DMV, online, at an election office or at a voter registration drive.

Jim Joice, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said in a statement that the ruling will not change its strategy for the upcoming election.

“We’re disappointed in the most recent ruling,” Joice said. “As far as the Election Year plan, this doesn’t change anything. Our goals and path to victory have not changed. The KSGOP has the superior product. Kansans know that.”

Rep. J.R. Claeys, the Salina Republican who manages Kobach's campaign, declined to comment on whether the ruling would affect the campaign's turnout strategy.

"As you can imagine, sharing that would eliminate a tactical advantage since we are the campaign with overwhelming grassroots support through our statewide network of volunteers," Claeys said in an email.

Republicans control every statewide office and every federal office and hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Kansas Democratic Party officials know that they’ll have to do a better job signing up new voters and getting them to the polls if they want to change that — a goal made apparent by the party’s decision to send two representatives to sign up voters, an effort that happened alongside but separate from the League’s work.

Mosley said the party has a total of 100 hours of voter registration work planned in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district, where the party hopes to win a House seat for the first time in a decade.

She said the ruling creates a fair environment where the party no longer has to worry about guiding voters through extra steps after they fill out the registration form.

Friday’s dual efforts by the party and the League resulted in 72 of the 82 people who became citizens taking the extra step of becoming registered voters. That was the highest percentage that League representatives could remember in years.

The naturalization group was made up of immigrants from 41 countries.

The Democrats signed up voters with the federal form, while the League used the state form. Before last week’s ruling, any voters using the state form would have had to supply the additional citizenship documents.

Jared Knutt, who registered as a Democrat, called becoming a voter “the best part of the journey” in becoming a citizen.

“I’ve been sitting here on the sidelines, not being able to effect change,” said Knutt, a compliance manager who lives in Lenexa and immigrated to the United States from Trinidad in 2013.

Another one of the new voters was an Army specialist stationed at Fort Riley, Mustafa Seddiri, who emigrated from Algeria three years ago.

“I think it’s important. When you’re not a citizen, that’s the one thing you can’t do,” he said.

Ebou Secka, an Overland Park customer service representative who was born in Gambia, joked that he was going to run for mayor in the future now that he’s registered.

In the short term, Secka said, he definitely plans to vote in the election. He called the registration process simple and easy.

Few people besides Kobach and his most ardent defenders would describe the process that way four years ago.

Ahead of the 2014 election, the state’s suspended-voter list ballooned to more than 20,000. Even some people who had submitted their required documents received letters telling them they were on the suspended list because of glitches or bureaucratic hiccups.

Davis was reluctant to point to the law as a determining factor in the 2014 race, but he did agree that it hampered efforts to sign up new voters.

“Kris Kobach basically put the good old-fashioned League of Women Voters’ voter registration drive out of business,” Davis said.

While voters at naturalization ceremonies have their documents on hand, it’s unlikely prospective voters will have the materials required by the law at many other places the League goes to sign up new voters, such as college campuses and high schools.

Four members of the League of Women Voters drove to more than 100 homes in Lawrence to help suspended voters complete their registration status — personally shepherding them and their citizenship documents to the Douglas County courthouse in some cases — and it took them 30 hours to get only 30 voters through the registration process.

“About an hour per successful registration,” said Cille King, co-president of the Kansas League of Women Voters.

King said the ruling will allow the League to return to other work that it was forced to neglect in recent years.

“We’re thrilled that it’s making our work easier and we can focus on other things … like educating voters instead of spending all this time on registering them to vote,” she said.

The suspended-voter list was disproportionately made up of younger voters and voters from urban areas, according to a 2015 analysis by The Wichita Eagle.

Michael Smith, a political scientist from Emporia State University who studied the suspended-voter list, pointed to Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., as areas with a higher concentration of suspended voters.

Smith predicted that the court decision will lead to tens of thousands of new voters becoming registered, but he said it will still be difficult to get many of those new voters to the polls in a nonpresidential election year.

“If there’s a candidate who really wants to get out there and register voters, that’s going to make this a heck of a lot easier,” Smith said.

“The one case where this gummed up the works was voter registration drives. Because how do you have a voter registration drive and say bring your birth certificate?”